The Church

My previous post on this section of the Joint Statement is located here. I dealt with both sections on the church, since they need to be taken together. I still think that is necessary, since the main point concerns the visible/invisible church distinction. We must be careful on this point, since retractions are sometimes necessary.

That being said, these two sections are not above criticism. As I said before, although the visible/invisible church distinction is affirmed, the waters are muddied when he says, “the historical church generally corresponds to the visible church.” The matter would be much better put this way: the historical church consists of members of the visible and invisible church in time as they are on earth. My point I raised before about the eschatological church being fully visible is also helpful here. For members of the invisible church who are alive today are surely part of the historical church. That is why I find this statement unhelpful. To me, it still makes me think that the historical/eschatological is being confused with the visible/invisible. I do think the two distinctions are confused in RINE (see especially page 74 where Doug says that the historical/eschatology preserves the necessary distinction made by visible/invisible- it does no such thing!) and in Doug’s 2002 AAPC conference lectures where he talks of tipping over the visible/invisible distinction on its side so that it is temporal. The former distinction is diachronic, while the latter distinction is synchronic. Both distinctions are valid (is anyone denying the validity of the historical/eschatological distinction? If not, then why have a separate section denying such a denial?) and fully biblical. But they are different distinctions.

I would ask this question: is it legitimate in any way to say that members of the visible church who are not elect are not part of the church? How else can the visible church be described but as a church that seeks to measure up to the invisible church? Contrary to FV claims, this does not result either in denigration of the church, or in Baptistic thinking (unless the FV wants to take the unprecedented step of accusing non-paedo-communionists of being Baptistic). We do not believe in regenerate church membership for the visible church. That is the essence of Baptistic thinking. What is different about us is that we believe in regenerate membership of the invisible church.

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30 Comments

  1. David Gadbois said,

    July 29, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    Lane, I am surprised that you did not take more exception to this part of the article on the church in the Joint Statement.

    Specifically, the statement that the visible church “is the possession of everyone who has been baptized in the triune name and who has not
    been excommunicated by a lawful disciplinary action of the Church.” This statement represents the baptismal nominalism that pervades FV thought, and it is at odds with the Statement’s later assertion that the visible church contains “all those who profess the true religion” (using WCF’s language).

    The fact is that there are lots of folks who do not profess the true religion, attend false churches, or don’t attend *any* church who have not been excommunicated. But the FV wants them in the visible church because of their notion of baptismal efficacy and objectivity. I don’t know how this is anything more than a creative form of good ol’ timey nominalism.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    July 30, 2008 at 9:24 am

    I see your point, David. I actually thought it was covered under the discussion of the visible/invisible church, specifically where I asked whether the FV’ers would be willing to say that a non-elect person in the visible church is, in another sense, not part of the church at all.

  3. Peter Jones said,

    July 30, 2008 at 10:04 am

    Here is a quote from Calvin’s Institutes Book IV, Chapter 1. In response to Dave, it seems that Calvin felt until there was a public decision we should consider them part of the visible church and treat them as brethern, even if we do not consider them part of the Church. I do not think Calvin would say this if they belonged to a false church, that is a church that did not hold to the proper administration of the sacraments and the preaching of the word. I understand it is a lot more complicated than it was in Reformation with the numerous denominations, etc. Still, I found this entire section (Book IV) in Calvin helpful. Note here also, that for Calvin, “religious profession” does not equal righteous living. For he says that there are those who have the religious profession but are in fact aliens from the Church.

    “The Church universal is the multitude collected out of all nations, who, though dispersed and far distant from each other, agree in one truth of divine doctrine, and are bound together by the tie of a common religion. In this way it comprehends single churches, which exist in different towns and villages, according to the wants of human society, so that each of them justly obtains the name and authority of the Church; and also comprehends single individuals, who by a religious profession are accounted to belong to such churches, although they are in fact aliens from the Church, but have not been cut off by a public decision. There is, however, a slight difference in the mode of judging of individuals and of churches. For it may happen in practice that those whom we deem not altogether worthy of the fellowship of believers, we yet ought to treat as brethren, and regard as believers, on account of the common consent of the Church in tolerating and bearing with them in the body of Christ. Such persons we do not approve by our suffrage as members of the Church, but we leave them the place which they hold among the people of God, until they are legitimately deprived of it. With regard to the general body we must feel differently; if they have the ministry of the word, and honour the administration of the sacraments, they are undoubtedly entitled to be ranked with the Church, because it is certain that these things are not without a beneficial result. Thus we both maintain the Church universal in its unity, which malignant minds have always been eager to dissever, and deny not due authority to lawful assemblies distributed as circumstances require.”

  4. David Gadbois said,

    July 30, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Peter, I don’t have a problem with anything you wrote, but even if we do grant a judgment of charity toward some “whom we deem not altogether worthy of the fellowship of believers” for those in churches that practice church discipline, this still leaves the many multitudes of folks who have not been excommunicated because they were baptized in churches that do not practice discipline. My guess is that the vast majority of baptized apostates have never seen any formal discipline or excommunication. Folks who simply stop attending church. Or folks who live wicked lives while attending a megachurch with thousands of other anonymous “members.” Or those such as Doug Wilson’s proverbial “lesbian Eskimo bishop” in a liberal mainline church.

    FV says that they are Christians, in the visible church, and we need to “grab their baptisms.” Orthodox Reformed say that they are apostates who should not be allowed to approach the Table.

  5. Peter Jones said,

    July 30, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    David, I think you are missing Calvin’s point. He seems to be saying that just because someone belongs to a church that has not excommunicated them when they should have, does not mean we can excommunicate them in our minds. Calvin is addressing people who have not been disciplined, but should be. Here is the quote again, “Such persons we do not approve by our suffrage as members of the Church, but we leave them the place which they hold among the people of God, until they are legitimately deprived of it.” Legitimately deprived=excommunication. Thus I think Calvin is addressing exactly what you mention. People who belong to churches that do not practice church discipline. I understand that it is a bit more complicated than it was in 1550, but still his point has some weight.

  6. Slabbert Le Cornu said,

    July 30, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Article 15 – Canons of Dordt

    God is under no obligation to confer this grace upon any; for how can He be indebted to one who had no previous gifts to bestow as a foundation for such recompense? Nay, how can He be indebted to one who has nothing of his own but sin and falsehood? He, therefore, who becomes the subject of this grace owes eternal gratitude to God, and gives Him thanks forever. Whoever is not made partaker thereof is either altogether regardless of these spiritual gifts and satisfied with his own condition, or is in no apprehension of danger, and vainly boasts the possession of that which he has not. Further, WITH RESPECT TO THOSE WHO OUTWARDLY PROFESS THEIR FAITH AND AMEND THEIR LIVES, WE ARE BOUND, AFTER THE EXAMPLE OF THE APOSTLES, TO JUDGE AND SPEAK OF THEM IN MOST FAVORABLE MANNER; FOR THE SECRET RECESSES OF THE HEART ARE UNKOWN TO US. And as to others who have not yet been called, it is our duty to pray for them to God, who calls the things that are not as if they were. But we are in no wise to conduct ourselves towards them with haughtiness, as if we had made ourselves to differ.

  7. Slabbert Le Cornu said,

    July 30, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    Sorry, it is article 15 of chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dordt

  8. David Gadbois said,

    July 30, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    Peter, Calvin would no sooner have communed Wilson’s lesbian Eskimo bishop than he did the Libertines. He would never have allowed the Supper to be profaned in such a way.

    He does not define precisely the groups of people he is referring to when he speaks of those “we do not approve by our suffrage…” I find it impossible to believe he would extend it as far as you have. In this section of the Institutes, Calvin is referring to true visible churches, not to just any church.

  9. Peter Jones said,

    July 30, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    David, Do you thing Pastor Wilson would allow a known practicing lesbian to eat the supper at his church?

  10. David Gadbois said,

    July 30, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Peter, if he were consistent, yes.

  11. David Gadbois said,

    July 30, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Also, note that Calvin says that it is “by a religious profession are accounted to belong to such churches” that is the basis for the judgment of charity. Calvin is referring to those who have a profession of faith (which meshes well with WCF’s “those who profess the true religion” definition). This narrows down the scope of his statements here, and certainly could not apply to someone that, say, the apostate who just stopped attending church.

    I also note in passing that Calvin states that the basis is religious profession, not baptism.

  12. David Gadbois said,

    July 30, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Your question actually reminds me of a combox conversation w/ Wilson over at Blog and Mablog from some time back. Wilson said that he would, of course, excommunicate someone like John Crossan or John Shelby Sponge (I forget which one we were using as the example) if they attended his church. But what Wilson did not say – could not say – is that he would refuse them the Supper if they decided to visit his church in Moscow, ID on a particular Lord’s Day. With his premises, he would have to.

  13. Wes White said,

    July 30, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    Neither do Baptists:

    All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.

    London Baptist Confession, Chap. 26.

  14. greenbaggins said,

    July 30, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Wes, in my post I was referring to more modern Baptistic thinking, rather than the LBC, since it is more modern dispensational-type Baptist thinking which unfortunately comes to mind first in describing Baptists.

  15. Wes White said,

    July 30, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    Lane, I was responding to Rey’s comments.

  16. greenbaggins said,

    July 30, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    #17, Oh, right. Now I see what you’re saying.

    #18, Rey, you aren’t even close to describing accurately the Reformed position. The fact is that every church has unbelievers in it, no matter how pure it is. See the parable of the net in Matthew 13.

  17. Seth Foster said,

    July 30, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    I may seem simplistic here, but I would like to ask what is the true church? Isn’t the true church all those elect who have been born again by the Spirit? If that is the case, then the only true church is the invisible church. This true church is made up of those who are presently living here on earth and those who have gone on to be with the Lord.

    If the “visible” church is made up of believers and nonbelievers, then it is not a true church if you stick to the strict definition of a church. So, to distinguish between a visible or invisible church is irrelevant – there is only one church – the invisible church.

    Jesus said that we are to worship in Spirit and in Truth. The child’s catechism asks the question, Can we see God? The answer is no because God is a Spirit. He is invisible.

    In Romans 1:20 Paul writes that God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen and understood by the things that are made. The only purpose of the visible is to point to the invisible. But the two are far from being the same. To put so much emphasis on the visible is to do exactly what Paul condemns in this chapter- to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator.

    Jesus also says that His kingdom is not of this world. Paul in Colossians tells us to set our minds on things above, not on things of the earth. Why? Because in reality we have died and our life is hidden (invisible) with Christ in God (Colossians 3).

    Hebrews 11 states that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. They were framed by the word of God and we only understand this by faith. Faith is the evidence of things not seen (the invisible).

    It is my understanding that the FV pretty much denies the existence of invisible church or disregards it until the so-called “final salvation”. To only recognize the visible church, which in reality is not the true church, is to violate Scripture and in a very real sense to deny God who is invisible.

    Which is the real corn – the husk or the kernels? When I see the husk, I can pretty well assume that underneath it is the corn. The husk points to the corn. The FV, however, would have us believe that the husk is of the same substance as the corn. Outward baptism equals union with Christ. Taking the bread and the wine equals fellowship with Christ. Visible equals invisible. And, in some extreme cases, the pastor equals Christ.

  18. Peter Jones said,

    July 31, 2008 at 7:53 am

    Seth, then why attend a visible church? If the true church is an invisible reality, then why do I need a pastor and the fellowship of other maybe believers? I can pray at home, even administer the sacraments to myself, since the reality is up in heaven, not in front of me. I am not saying you would go this far, but your comments logically end up there. You have just shown the exact the reason there needs to be more thought on the visible/invisible distinction. I am not sure I agree with FV guys on everything, but your take is unbibiblical, especially using Romans 1, which is not about this topic at all. How can Paul call any group of people a church using your definition? In Paul’s mind there were churches, and the Church, but these churches were still part of the Church and have genuine, real authority and the presence of Christ is truly there.

  19. Peter Jones said,

    July 31, 2008 at 8:24 am

    Dave, I don’t know if you are still around, but I wanted to talk a bit more about our early comments. I think the question is what earthly authority has the right to define the boundaries of the Church/People of God? Now let me say from the beginning, of course, God ultimately defines the boundaries and his word is the final authority. Here are my initial thoughts. These are not set in stone. I am thinking out loud.

    We must deal with this at both a church and individual level, not a denominational level. At a church level it is possible for a body of believers to so fall away from the Scriptures as to be no longer counted a church. I think this is plain from I Corinthians, Galatians, Hebrews and Revelation 2:4. The implications in these passages is that if these churches continued they would be cut off. This could occur either through egregious moral sin, such as allowing a homosexual to lead, or a sin of belief, such as open denial of the resurrection. Just as an individual can lose their standing through either of these, so can a church. These would be false churches, churches that have that have fallen away from the faith.

    At the individual level, a person is cut off from the church when they are excommunicated by a true church.

    The complications come when you have true believers in false churches and those who should be cut off, residing in true churches. Does the authority of the local church trump the individual’s standings? If the answer is yes, then a believer in a false church would have to be admitted to the table upon examination since the do not belong to a true church. The flipside is also true, and I think this is what Calvin was talking about, a person who would be excommunicated in my church, if they belong to a true church must be counted among the people of God because a church with real authority has not cut them off.

    This is by no means neat and tidy. There are all sorts of variables, but I think it gets us moving in the right direction. I open to comments from you or Lane or anyone else on the matter.

  20. Roger Mann said,

    July 31, 2008 at 8:39 am

    21. Peter wrote,

    Seth, then why attend a visible church? If the true church is an invisible reality, then why do I need a pastor and the fellowship of other maybe believers?

    I think you might have missed something that Seth said:

    “This true church is made up of those who are presently living here on earth and those who have gone on to be with the Lord.”

    It seems to me that Seth is merely pointing out that the true “invisible” church consists of the elect who presently live here on earth and those who have gone on to be with the Lord. In other words, he’s not denying that there is a “visible” church here on earth, but only that the non-elect who are members of the visible church are not genuine Christians or members of the true “invisible” church.

  21. Manlius said,

    July 31, 2008 at 8:53 am

    Seth-
    Just because there are tares along with the wheat does not mean that the visible church is the true church. When Jesus is speaking to the churches in Revelation, why are does he even bother to refer to most of them as churches?

    Remember, ecclesia just means assembly or gathering, and a gathering on earth is always going to have wheat and tares. We’re not to concern ourselves with that. Formal excommunication follows when someone has already visibly cut themselves off by unbelief or unrepentant sin. There are many people who will not persevere to salvation that we can’t excommunicate because it’s not our job!

    A better distinction than visible/invisible church is the church militant and the church triumphant. The church triumphant consists only of persevering saints, whereas the church militant does, as the hymn puts it, have “false sons in her pale.”

  22. Manlius said,

    July 31, 2008 at 8:54 am

    Sorry, first sentence should read “…does not mean that the visible church is not the true church.” Goes to prove that double negatives are particularly dangerous when you forget to add one of the negatives.

  23. Peter Jones said,

    July 31, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Roger, that may be what Seth meant, but that is not what he said. According to Seth, the true church is not the church I go to on Sunday, but rather the invisible reality that this visible thing points to. It is hard to see how this mode of thinking does not denigrate the local body of believers and the authority of the local church. It is also hard to see how this in accord with the way Paul, Peter, and John talk to local churches.

  24. Seth Foster said,

    July 31, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    The purpose of the local church is to point us to Christ. In the same way the husk on the outside identifies or points to the corn. In the same way the mountains and oceans and all created visible things point us to God’s invisible attributes of power and majesty, love and grace. What is our purpose? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Only true believers who have the life of Christ within them can gather together in a local body to gloriify God and enjoy Him. For what fellowship does light have with darkness?

    Jesus went up to a fig tree, saw the leaves but did not see any fruit, and He cursed the tree. You see, fruit is the visible sign of the invisible life within the tree. In Revelation, Jesus commended those believers who produced the fruit, while at the same time, warning those who only had leaves – only an outward show of religion but no inner invisible life that produced the fruit of the Spirit.

    The tares and the wheat refer not to the church but to the world – the field where both grow together is the world. Believers and unbelievers are scattered all over the world, including in local churches.

  25. G.C.Berkley said,

    August 4, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    The new covenant is in Christ’s blood, not yours. But then, we could spin around and around on the Baptist/paedobaptist wheel, couldn’t we?

  26. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    August 6, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Re 27:

    The local church only points us to Christ? Christ is not actually present (by the work of the Spirit, not in physical form), as he promised (Matt. 18:20)? It’s hard to see why this sort of “kernel” vs. “husk” idea shouldn’t logically wind up in classic Quakerism, since only the internal, spiritual, invisible elements are really the true ones.

    And the church is very different from creation: the Reformed tradition holds that God has promised and bound Himself in covenant to be present in the Church in a unique way for the blessing of His own, through the Spirit who works the Word and sacraments. No such promise exits in creation.

    This is the sort of thinking that makes me very sympathetic to both Mike Horton’s and the FV’s views of ecclesiology and sacraments.

  27. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    August 6, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Re 4:

    FV says that they are Christians, in the visible church, and we need to “grab their baptisms.” Orthodox Reformed say that they are apostates who should not be allowed to approach the Table.

    Of course, that requires that the elders know that they living in such a way, which wouldn’t happen for most visitors anyway. If a visitor shows up to church, we might be able to know that one is a lesbian Eskimo bishop because of the cassock, butch haircut, and dogsled, but what otherwise we just issue the warnings from 1 Corinthians, fleshed out by the BCO. If they refuse to heed the call to repent or to abstain, then the Supper is judgment to them. Perhaps the URC does something different, but the OPC usually invites those who have professed faith and are members of a “Bible-believing” church, which doesn’t do anything formal to prevent secret apostates from coming.

    Wilson insists that baptism “means that the mark of Christ has been placed on that person, and that he now has an obligation to repent and believe. A baptized individual has the obligation to have his life point the same direction his baptism does — to Christ and to His righteousness…baptized infidels are not “real” Christians, and unless they repent, they will all perish…Those covenant members who despise the covenant are under a much stricter judgment than the pagans outside.” All this leads up to the approach (taken from Matthew Henry’s father) to “grab them by their baptism.” That is to say, to warn them that they have been baptized, and that if they are not living in a way consisted with that baptism, they are subject to worse judgment. This is essentially what the warning issued in Reformed churches do, only the FV connects it directly to baptism.

  28. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    August 6, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Oops. How do I close the italics?

  29. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    August 6, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Only the first paragraph of 31 should be italics, quoting David G. The rest is my response.

  30. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    August 6, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Short version:

    “Grab them by their baptisms” does not mean “just let them commune whenever they want.” It means “warn them that those who profess Christ and yet live in any secret sin are subject to judgment.”


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